Being Mixed Race in Klan Country

I've never been able to tell this story without having to answer a lot of questions that are best answered if I start telling it from the very beginning. So in order to tell the story I want to tell, there is exposition that needs to covered first.

My Grandmother

My grandmother was the daughter of a black mother, a descendant of Barbadian immigrants in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She never knew her father, but thanks to DNA testing, we now know he was a white man from rural Ontario, Canada. She knew her mother but wasn't raised by her. Instead, she grew up with another afro-Caribbean foster family in Montreal. Yes, there are black people in Canada. No, they are not "African Americans."

Tea is still tea, no matter how much milk is in it.

My grandmother was married just long enough to have a daughter. She fled to the United States in 1963 because her ex-husband threatened to kill her during their divorce and custody battle over their daughter. In the immigration documents and various other papers I collected from my grandmother's apartment when she died, she labeled her race as "Mulatto." For the rest of her life though, she passed as white.

What happens when a biracial woman moves to the United States in the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement? I'll tell you because that's the story of my family. She met my grandfather, who was her neighbor, soon after coming to California. They didn't get married until after they already had my father and my uncle. 

My grandmother thought she she could reconstruct a new identity for herself in the United States as a white person. She thought she could keep herself and her children from ever knowing the struggles of being black by keeping her origins a secret. We never saw any of her family in Canada. She never told us they were black. I never saw pictures of them. I think she was so afraid we would hate each other, we didn't even have each other's names or contact information speak to each other until she died. That's how compartmentalized she maintained the color line within her own relationships.

My Father

For those of you who don't understand how melanin works in black and mixed race families, how dark your children come out is completely random. My father was dark. Darker than my grandmother ever was. My uncle was pale white, but had black hair texture. (Aside: He and his oldest son could grow afros if they wanted to.)

This turned into a horrible dynamic where my grandfather hated my father because he was black. My uncle was his favorite, and my grandmother favored my dad. It was an ongoing toxic relationship that was still going on by the time I was born and made up the backdrop of my life.

My grandfather retired and moved their family from southern California to Cecil County, Maryland, where his family was from. In case you don't know, Cecil County is Klan country. That's where my parents met. That's where I was born and raised.

I can't imagine too many of you have seen the Chapelle Show. But way back when that was on, he had a character named Clayton Bigsby. A Klan member who didn't realize he was a black man because he was blind. That was my father, except he wasn't blind. My father wanted so badly to be white so his father would love him and be proud of him. He internalized all the racism my grandfather ever threw at him and that's what he became. 

My father joined the Keystone Knights, a KKK group that was run out of southern Pennsylvania, when I was a teenager. The girlfriend he had after my parents separated was a white supremacist.

I know what it's like to have my black father drunkenly scream at me for hours every night, trying to brainwash me into believing the same toxic rhetoric he was raised on. I know what it's like to watch him do the same thing to my younger sister, and that I was completely powerless to stop him. Burger King had a commemorative calendar for 9/11 firefighters. I have no idea where my sister got it, but my father took it from her and screamed at her about it because it had black firefighters in it.


This was how we were raised, and we weren't alone. Our schools didn't need to segregate. We self-segregated. If you were white and you had black friends, your family couldn't know about it. You could only spend time together at school. Your parents could never find out.

I was a martial arts instructor when I was a teenager. I taught the younger brothers of a girl I went to middle and high school with. I heard her father giving her a hard time because she was friends with black people and he didn't like it. He threatened to beat her if she didn't stop.

I am not dark skinned, but I still have a lot of non-white features that got me bullied and rejected by kids my age. The white kids called me "fish lips" and made fun of me because my brown hair didn't match my black eyebrows. My thighs are too thick. My breasts are too large. My ass is too big. From strangers. From family. The unspoken second half of that sentence has always been "for a white girl."

I come from a community that deserves to be embarrassed for how they've raised their children, for the harm and violence they've been perpetuating for generations based on race. I've met way too many white people who don't understand that these things didn't end after the Civil Rights movement back in the 60s. This is a daily reality for people in communities just like mine. Not in some past life that's over and done with. Today.

Why am I telling this story today? Because the "mongrelization of America" is exactly what white supremacists are so afraid of. Me and my family? We're the mongrels that white supremacists hate so much. They need to be reminded that their violence hasn't worked. We still exist.

I choose to be visible in that existence, exactly for who and what I am, exactly because white supremacy has tried so hard to shame me into silence.

I'll also say this. I worship in a community whose history with race is largely unknown to its white membership. From within that community, I've had people say to me in earnestness that my blackness is too diluted by whiteness for me to speak on my personal experiences racism the way I do. I don't accept that criticism from anyone who has to be told that I am still black enough to have once been prevented from having full fellowship in the Church. I do not recognize the self-appointed authority of white people to dictate to me what my identity is, to calculate based on their perception of my skin color whether my experience is valid or not. Especially not from anyone who has obviously never heard the word "Octoroon" before and doesn't know our history.

And if you can't handle me even acknowledging that this part of my life exists and has valid trauma attached to it, you're really not going to like how this story ends.

What it's like when the Police Kill One of Your Parents 

The desire to measure the weight of someone's racial trauma proportionately to the darkness of their skin is a pervasive one. What I've been surprised to discover is that progressive people cling to it just as fervently as conservative people do, albeit for different reasons. It comes from a place of bias that allows them to simplify the narrative of who is hurt by racism, and the choice of who to listen to and care about. 

They need "the blacker the skin, the deeper the hurt" to be true.

But here's the lived reality people of color experience in the US, no matter what color their skin actually is: even the smallest presence of melanin, one drop of black blood, is all it takes for racists to invalidate your humanity. Lighter skin and the ability to pass didn't afford us the privilege of being safe in the community that dehumanized us.

When I was 19 years old, I woke up before Jesus and all creation, piled into my boss's car, and made my normal commute across the city of Baltimore to the physical therapy clinic where I worked. I was sitting at my desk, when all the sudden my mom came into the office.

Immediately, I knew something was wrong. She wouldn't have driven across the state and sat in traffic for more than an hour if something hadn't been deeply wrong. She would've just called me. Someone was dead. I braced myself to find out who.

"Your father is dead." 

The thought hung in the air between us silently for several moments. She was waiting for me to have a reaction that was never going to come. 

"How?" I finally asked. 

The story slowly emerged in the days and weeks ahead. He'd had warrants out for his arrest. The police found him in one of the places he would frequently hang out to do drugs. He tried to run and they gave chase.

Keep in mind, this took place in the middle of the night in rural Maryland. The kind of rural with no sidewalks or street lights, and the only things around are subdivisions in the middle of nowhere. They were chasing him at high speed in a residential area. They chased him in total darkness until he lost control of the car he was driving. He crashed into a telephone pole going fast enough that it severed his head from his body. He was dead before he even knew what happened.

My mom is telling me this story, and I'm sitting there in disbelief. Why on earth would police officers take those kinds of risks with someone like him? They could've injured or killed someone else pulling a stunt like that. 

What makes a cop disregard their reason, their training, their common sense, and their concern for the safety of innocent people like that?


My father was mixed race, but he was still black enough for the white cops who police the Mason Dixon Line to hunt him like an animal. I had my own reasons for despising him, but no one deserves to die like that. Not even him. 

My mom took me to the spot where he died. The skid marks on the road were still there. That summer changed me forever. Before, I had an informed mistrust of law enforcement. Now? I am terrified of them and won't go anywhere near them. Everyone who knows me at all has heard me say it. "I don't do cops." This isn't some philosophical or moral hypothetical for me. This isn't something I've absorbed secondhand from someone else. This is my life. My experience. My trauma. My pain. All the things my lighter skin color didn't save me from.

I'll be honest. It enrages me to hear people say that mixed race people have any kind of white privilege, the notion that because some person could mistake us as white means we're safe. That's not how things work where I come from. That's why I left and I can never go back. There was no future in that town for me as my father's daughter.

Years after my father's death, I spoke to a white cop who was a guard at the jail when my father was incarcerated there. Like every other cop and judge in the county, he knew and remembered my father's name. I saw the way that man wouldn't even look me in the eye after he found out who I was. That reaction is real, and was in no way tempered by the color of my skin.

My skin didn't magically turn into Kevlar just because I was born lighter than my father was. White skin does not negate my experiences and pain as a mixed race person in a racist community. White skin doesn't purify or cancel out our blackness. White skin has no power, no sacred inviolability, in and of itself.

If you truly want to dismantle racism, it's not just going to happen in the ways we dismantle and deconstruct the myths around black skin. It also comes from dismantling and deconstructing what we believe about white skin. And if the logic by which you define white privilege doesn't take into account the experiences of mixed race people because of their skin color, then it too is another form of racism that needs to be dismantled.

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